It was a muggy Friday evening, 18th July 2014 to be precise, and several hundred people had assembled outside the stunning Royal Hall in Harrogate to see J K Rowling in conversation with Val McDermid about her Robert Galbraith crime novels. For me, this event, which was part of the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, was an opportunity not to be missed. Others will have been Harry Potter fans, Galbraith fans, J K fans, whatever. Or just curious about the woman who became a publishing and multi-media phenomenon years ago. And I am in this last category. I haven’t read Potter, the films weren’t for me, I didn’t buy the Casual Vacancy and Galbraith’s novels aren’t quite my kind of crime fiction. But I adore J K Rowling and have a huge amount of admiration for her.
J K came on stage in a beautiful grey suit and salmon tie. It was a humorous nod to her male writing identity and looked sharp and fresh. Humour and wit are things which ooze from J K, and both appeal to me. What was evident from the start of the interview was that Val and J K have a good rapport and a mutual respect. They also share an editor. She mentioned how delighted she’d been at Val McDermid’s comments on The Cuckoo’s Calling, and how she’d written to Val as Galbraith to thank her, and a second time as J K Rowling once her identity came out. Asked about her choice of pen name, J K said that ‘Robert’ was one of her favourite male names, and that she’d had a thing about the name ‘Galbraith’ since childhood. Regarding her protagonist’s name, Cormoran is the name of a Cornish giant, which appealed to her, and she wanted the character to have a name which people would get wrong. She hates her own name, Rowling, as it’s so often mis-pronounced (to rhyme with growling … instead of Rowling, as in bowling). Names. They seem to be important to JK.
I was stunned when she said that she’d read hardly any fantasy novels when she wrote Harry Potter, but one of the main things which strikes me (sorry!) about J K is that her imagination has an extraordinary quality to it, and I find this fascinating and compelling. She emphasised how much she’s always loved crime fiction, citing Marjorie Allingham and Agatha Christie as her Golden Age favourites and Val and Mark Billingham as her contemporary ones. I thought she seemed a little nervous, talking about contemporary crime authors, and I was surprised she couldn’t think of some others but a) perhaps she simply went blank, and b) maybe she prefers the Golden Age writers, either of which is forgivable.
Regarding the Cormoran Strike novels, she said she has the story arc planned for over seven more novels. I know a lot about Cormoran, she said, nodding her head slowly, as if she’d been rifling through MI5 files. She referred to herself as being ‘obsessive’ and mentioned that she does detailed planning and research, using a colour coded system to keep track of plot strands, before she starts writing. This enables her to focus on the writing aspect once she starts. She likes to get details right and ‘sneaks around’, doing research. To indicate the extent of her desire for accuracy she mentioned the tomes she has in her house on forensics, body decomposition and insects, and recalled a time when she took her husband for breakfast at a café to check the specifics of the menu. She joked about how, for a few moments in the café, she thought she’d been recognised until the person said ‘Nah, I wouldn’t know what she looked like’. Whilst she laughed about this episode, and said at the start of the interview that she would never complain about the hype around being ‘J K Rowling’, I got the impression that she feels ambivalent it.
When asked about the decision to use a pseudonym, J K said that it was simply to prove to herself that she could get a crime novel published on the strength of the book alone. She has, of course, said this publicly before … and whilst people have questioned it, saying it was all a big publicity campaign, I actually believe her. Despite her enormous success as a writer, she came across as being just as doubt-ridden and validation-seeking as most writers (and if it was a PR campaign, it was a good one!). She said that she’s enjoying basing the Galbraith books in reality after the fantasy of ‘Potterverse’. She said that the plot for Silkworm had been in her head for about six years, but that she wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling to introduce Strike via a less elaborate story. Silkworm is the most complex plot she’s ever written. So, for the future, we can expect more Galbraith novels. J K is also working on the script for Fantastic Beasts. This is a trilogy of Harry Potter spin off films, set 70 years prior to the arrival of Potter and his peers at the Hogwarts. She has many more novels that she wants to write, these are her passion. She admits to having a restlessness in her imagination, and it’s clear that it’s partly this that drives her to keep writing. She is a canny business woman but she obviously adores writing. I anticipate more surprises from J K in the future, and I admire this about her. Despite her success with Potter, she is clearly still driven, and says ‘The One is still shining in front of me’. I liked that. There is something childlike and innocent about it.
To me, J K came across as open, warm and honest – and very down to earth. She said that with every book she’s got bogged down in plot strands and thought, ‘This is utter crap’. That when this happens she takes the day off and then returns the next day and reads the whole manuscript through from start to finish.
I was lucky enough to land a compooter-generated-but-very-jammy front row seat for this event which was very lovely but what was extremely weird was that at the start of the interview a huge spider came crawling over the floor from the stage to where my sandal-ed feet and bag were. This was extremely distracting, and resulted in me wriggling and trying to suppress squeals for ten minutes whilst fearing I was going to be thrown out of the venue – or worse, told off by either J K or Val (oh gawd, imagine the shame!). Fortunately a kind lady a few seats down picked it up and moved it to the side. Please, someone, tell me that spiders are lucky…?!
This event was strictly controlled. No photography was allowed, and book signings were done row by row. The photography ban bugged me a bit (a few snaps are fine, surely? Obviously video is a no, no) but it didn’t surprise me. Overall, I am pleased I have seen J K talk about her books and writing. It’s such a cliché to say that I found her inspiring … but I really did. I get the impression that she knows what she’s good at, and what she needs help with, and I think that shows good judgement and an honesty with herself. But more than anything, she came across as an extremely nice person.
Vicky Newham © 2014